Minari: Grasping at the Model Minority Myth

Minari explores the class struggles and poverty of Asian immigrants, citizenship, assimilation, and settling into America. The film explores these themes through the Korean-American, Yi family. However, Lee Isaac Chung fails to deliver on these concepts as he centers on American citizenship and the American Dream. By focusing his scope on these concepts, Chung reduces the cultural nuances and opportunity of losing Asian citizenship and culture.

Asian American diaspora and immigration formation came out of violent coercion of imperialism and displacement from their homeland. Recent examples being Korea and Vietnam. Then imperialism worsened the material conditions through embargoes and sanctions. What choice did everyday people get to determine their citizenship when they were refugees of war and imperialism?

These refugees and immigrants conformed to the model minority myth out of fear of yellow peril and orientalism. Yellow peril, a historical prejudice of xenophobia, orientalism, sinophobia made Asian Americans out to be conditional citizens, but citizenship has always been conditional. Citizenship is in a constant state of being defined and redefined to exclude Asian-Americans and other BIPOC.

Chung exemplifies the work of diasporic Asian American artists that are intent on first generational experiences or diaspora poetry (jokingly called by diaspora). These artists tend to define their work by their relationship with their parents and microaggressions. Often these artists tend to be ahistorical or apolitical. They fail to include analyzing orientalism, yellow peril, and sinophobia. And without understanding these prejudices, they reduce and erase nuances of anti-Asian violence. Their works then lack depth and aren’t even radical in their politics to upset the status quo.

That calls into question why their art exists. Another critique of their work is the orientalist gaze and how they perpetuate orientalism. Best exemplified through how these artists otherize and treat their parents and immigrants as afterthoughts. They merely define their humanity as inspiration porn for their Americanness without investigating their parent’s own experiences of diaspora like Tigertail.

After all, we don’t get to know Jacob and Monica’s Korean names or what they called themselves before becoming Americanized. We get a small glimpse of their lives before immigrating to California with Monica’s mom, Soon-Ja commenting how they used to sing this song and promised to save each other in America. We also don’t get to consider the conflict about their immigration or Soon-ja’s perspective on the Korean War.

And it isn’t that Chung fails to observe the systematic oppression of Asian-Americans. The film features white people committing microaggressions against David and Anne. The colonialism and imperialism aren’t unnoticed as there’s a Korean war veteran character and Christianity. Though awkwardness and uncomfortability exist between the Korean war veteran and the family, this subsides as he helps the family farming. More importantly, it’s noted that Soon-Ja isn’t religious or Christian like Jacob and his family.

With all of these components, the film frames the American Dream as inspirational, but investing so much value into these ideals is not a worthwhile effort. In the pursuit of the American Dream, patriarchy is the only one that benefits. Jacob, an Asian-American man is “emasculated” and denied patriarch power that he would in Korea, but is subjugated to adjacent patriarchy in America. He demonstrates this desire to be a patriarch. He wants to provide material conditions for his family to have the American Dream, but the mother and daughter aren’t given the same level of characterization. Monica doesn’t get the same amount of material in the screenplay to be tumultuous and complex as Jacob. She and other women of color don’t get to achieve the American Dream of being housewives because she and Jacob are working-class people. She also has to do twice the labor of working and domestic work of family on top of being a working-class person.

She has to be a strong Asian woman and mother for the sake of her family, but where else is she defined? Even worse, we don’t come to understand why Monica loves Jacob beyond the contractual obligations of marriage institutionally. Their love persists to upkeep the family structure, but where was that love developed?

Then, Anne, the eldest daughter, is underdeveloped. Anne had so much potential in being the eldest daughter or conflicting with David’s internalized racism. Worst of all is Soon-Ja sacrificing herself in taking away David’s illness. We find out that she had a stroke overnight and became paralyzed.

While Jacob shifts away from being a patriarch and David unlearns his internalized racism, the women come at the expense of that. First and foremost, the subjectivity of the men is more important than the women in Minari.

Then at the climax of the film, Soon-Ja left at home accidentally causes a fire that destroys the farm. Luckily, Soon-Ja planted the Minari by the riverbed earlier. The film ends bittersweet and hopeful, yet the ending is tragic as Chung, like other Asian Americans, hopes to integrate themselves into America rather than liberate themselves.

The most troubling element of the film was the treatment of Soon-Ja. The real-life suffering and pain of Asian elderly folks like her already parallel themselves in life. Even before the rise of covid, they were getting underpaid, unhoused, and deported.

Diasporic artists would defend the existence of their art through representation. Representation is defined as having equal access to resources, opportunities, and visibility within Hollywood and the industry. Representation is also the ability to tell universal and human stories featuring Asian Americans. In this vein, Chung isn’t concerned about engaging film through discourse and ideology of representation as he reports. He wants to depict a family story through Minari with specific cultural contexts informed by his lived experiences, but for the sake of arguing about representation and Chung, I want to challenge why it exists.

Representation can serve many purposes such as entertainment, art, healing, resistance, or intellectually challenging and political. There can be room for all these works to exist, but falling into representing only entertainment can fall into escapism and platitudes. I implore fellow Asian diasporic artists to engage politically and intellectually beyond having Asian American characters featured. There isn’t anything wrong with defining ourselves politically as artists or people. They shouldn’t divorce themselves from the political or else that plays into the model minority myth.

Virtually with representation, not everyone can be represented and certainly not by one artist, but representation shouldn’t be generalized. The work should be specific, and if they include thematic elements of class and poverty, the film should give the proper time and amount to develop it. Chung paces the film to rush through these aspects, but I wonder what would happen if it stopped and remained still with us more.

When I watched Minari, I thought about the difficulties and mobility of poverty. I thought about the financial failures that my parents encountered trying to be independent and owning a business in the restaurant industry. I remembered the bankruptcies and foreclosures and how they moved from bigger to smaller houses and trailers.

After numerous attempts at the American Dream, they moved on and worked for others in the restaurant business. There was so much within Jacob that I saw in my Dad that could have been defined more. I wanted to see the burnout and transitioned periods of unemployment and frustrations of class isolation that my Dad had in Jacob. I wanted to see Jacob cope through drinking, smoking, eating snacks, and watching films and television late at night.

I wanted to see Monica managing the family’s finances and how she kept money stashed away from being gambled or used like my Mom did with my Dad. Monica like my Mom had troubles with patriarchy and the division of labor in working at home and the workplace, and I was surprised that Monica wasn’t concerned about how working kept her away from her children. I knew how my parents regretted the price of their labor because they didn’t get to spend much time with siblings and me.

They were busy working six days a week with one day off on the weekend as Sunday, and the rest of their time was dedicated: to resting and the bare necessities of upkeeping chores and daily activities. While they were working, I was cared for by older cousins and grandparents, at least until my older brother was able to take care of himself and me. Then we were alone at home to do whatever we wanted. After coming home, and however tired they were: they hid that and played with us. They tried to save as much as possible by getting secondhand from Goodwill, but they poured so much money to show their love for us.

We learned so much about Vietnam and their lives before immigrating and when they were younger in America. That’s the reality of my life and many others, but how could Minari claim to represent class and poverty if the film doesn’t elaborate or expand on those components.

The tokenization of these elements made me question the existence of Minari. It doesn’t exist for healing, resisting, or opposing American institutions like the American Dream, but more than not, the film reaffirms the American Dream. I understand the pitfalls of the model minority myth and being tokens. I also understand that Asian artists feel defined by creating exploitative art because it caters to the white gaze, but getting validation from white people is meaningless. We, as displaced Asian Americans shouldn’t care though about defending our Americanness or citizenship because it is arbitrary.

Minh Ngo (he/they) is a filmmaker, photographer, writer, and student at New York University. They study film and television and are interesting in directing.

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